Perth, March 1989. It had been a long summer. Heat permeated everything. Dogs and cats lay panting in the shade, people fled to the beaches and bars, and Kings Park went up in flames - a glorious bushfire in the middle of the city. Against this backdrop, The Blackeyed Susans were formed, as a part-time concern for various members "on holiday" from their regular bands. David McComb (The Triffids - vocals and guitar), Phil Kakulas (Martha's Vineyard - bass), Rob Snarski (Chad's Tree - vocals and guitar), Alsy McDonald (The Triffids - drums) and Ross Bolleter (organ and accordian) formed the first line up of the band.
They played eight gigs and recorded four songs before their "day jobs" forced them to put the project on hold. The songs became their first EP, Some Births are Worse than Murders, released in 1990 on Waterfront Records. Acclaimed by music critics in Australia and the UK the record spent several weeks at No. 1 on the independent charts in Australia.
By the time this record was released the band had already undergone several incarnations. Not everyone took their holidays at the same time, so a floating lineup became an integral part of the band's character and appeal.
Kakulas had left for Sydney with Martha's Vineyard. He was replaced by Martyn Casey (The Triffids). Bolleter went to work in Japan, making his fortune playing piano in cocktail bars and restaurants before becoming a zen master. He was replaced by Adrian Wood. McComb was present in the second lineup in 1989 before departing for England. He was replaced by Kim Salmon (Beasts of Bourbon, The Surrealists - guitar and vocals) in the summer of 1990. Casey departed shortly after to join Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.
In mid-1990 Snarski travelled to London and recorded an album's worth of material with McComb and Kenny Davis Jnr (The Jackson Code - keyboards). Upon returning to Australia, Snarski moved to Sydney and with Davis Jnr formed the next lineup of the band. Kakulas returned as bass player, having worked with GW McLennan (The Go-Betweens) since the demise of Martha's Vineyard six months earlier. Kathy Wemyss (The Jackson Code - vocals and trumpet) and Tim Rollinson (DIG - guitar) were recruited whilst on holidays from inner city cabaret band Pressed Meat and the Smallgoods. James Elliott (drums) and James Cruickshank (organ) took leave from The Cruel Sea to play in the band. This lineup remained intact for most of 1991 and recorded an EP, Anchor Me, as well as contributing the song Glory, Glory to the Triple J Live at the Wireless compilation album.
Excellent reviews and good crowds followed sporadic appearances of the group in Sydney and Melbourne. The Blackeyed Susans were still very much an occasional event, coming together when it suited them for the pleasure of playing. They created a backdrop for Snarski's honey-laden vocals which were gaining more attention from press and public alike. He was awarded the WA Music Industry Award for Best Male Vocalist in 1991.
In late 1991 four songs from "the London Sessions" were released as the EP...Depends on What you Mean by Love.
Melbourne 1992 - 1995
After releasing two solo singles and playing a handful of shows in London with his band The Red Ponies, McComb had decided to return to Australia and settle in Melbourne. Graham Lee had been a resident of Melbourne for the past three years, playing in The Paradise Vendors, The Pub Dogs and Crown of Thorns, and Kakulas and Snarski had recently moved there - "going where the weather suits my clothes", as the song says. Locals Jim White (Venom P Stinger, The Dirty Three - drums) and Warren Lee Ellis (The Dirty Three - violin, organ and piano accordion) completed the lineup.
A compilation CD entitled Welcome Stranger was released in 1992. It incorporated material from the three previous EPs plus two extra tracks from The London Sessions and a live version of The Triffids' song In The Pines. Months of touring followed to promote the release Welcome Stranger before the band returned to the studio to record their debut full length album All Souls Alive, released in December 1993 and produced by Phil Kakulas. It featured ten tracks, eight penned by Kakulas/McComb, as well as the Leonard Cohen/Phil Spector classic Memories and an inspired version of the Johnny Paycheck song Apartment No 9.
Regarded as something of a classic now, the album features nine of Snarski's finest vocal performances to date, one over-the-top vocal by David McComb, the inspired chaos of Warren Lee Ellis and the majesty of Jim White, pedal steel by Graham Lee, plus mandolin and harmony vocals by Marko Halstead.
All Souls Alive was released in America on Frontier Records in April 1994 receiving great reviews and sales. The album was also released in the UK, Greece, Germany, Spain, Belgium, Holland, Italy and Sweden in July 1994. The album got great reviews in the UK press and airplay on Radio One.
Two singles lifted off the album were released in Australia in July 1994, being Dirty Water and This One Eats Souls. Each came with three bonus tracks, lifted from the now legendary cassette-only release Hard Liquor, Soft Music. Though technically by The Blackeyed Susans Trio, this was an album's worth of late night melancholy that has since become the most sought after of Susans rarities.
The Blackeyed Susans commenced working on their third album Mouth to Mouth in August 1994, completing it in May 1995. The band signed a new record deal with HI-GLOSS/Mds in March 1995.
Mouth to Mouth introduced current Blackeyed Susans members Kiernan Box (piano, organ and harmonica) and Dan Luscombe (guitar). It also featured the musical talents of Graham Lee (lap and pedal steel), Ashley Davies (drums) and Jen Anderson with Helen Mountfort on strings. Kath Wemyss (The Jackson Code) wrote wonderful string arrangements for the album and also played trumpet as part of a Salvation Army style brass ensemble on the track Hey Buddy. Recorded at Fortissimo Sound Studios, Melbourne, by Victor Van Vugt and Andy Parsons, it was produced by Phil Kakulas and mixed by the near-legendary Tony Cohen. Mouth to Mouth was released mid-July 1995.
Let's Live was the first single to be lifted off Mouth to Mouth and was released in Australia in June 1995. It contained several bonus tracks not available on the album, the most notable of which was a Suicide-styled reworking of the Springsteen track State Trooper. Mary Mac was the album's second single, once again containing bonus tracks not available on other releases, including a version of The Go-Betweens song Dive For Your Memory. The single proved to be the band's most successful thus far and the song is an essential part of The Susans' canon.
Melbourne 1995 – 2002
The band toured nationally through 1995, and ended the year with a very successful, if somewhat irreverent, tribute to Elvis Presley on New Year's Eve. This was to be the beginning of a tradition for The Susans, as each subsequent year they have returned to The Corner Hotel in Melbourne to play the best and the worst of the King's back catalogue. Sadly in '98 the King was put to rest.
A national tour with Paul Kelly followed in the Summer of '96, with current drummer Mark Dawson joining The Blackeyed Susans after many years involvment with both Ed Kuepper and The Jackson Code.
The band also had cause for celebration when news confirming their signing to American Recordings came through, with Mouth to Mouth slated for a May release in America and Canada. The band travelled to New York to play with the man in black himself, Johnny Cash, at CMJ in September '96, before touring in the U.S. and Canada. Oddly enough they had already written and were performing the song Smokin' Johnny Cash before any of this occurred. Phil Kakulas has said that Cash thanked him for the song after the show.
The relationship with American however would prove to be short lived. The label "released" The Susans from their contract, along with most of their other international acts, in the great slashback of '97.
In December '96 Some Night, Somewhere was released in Australia as a Xmas bonus disc with Mouth To Mouth. Recorded live at the Continental in Melbourne, this limited edition CD is much sought after by those eager to hear The Susans live in their living room.
Summer '97 saw the band back in the studio to record the Spin the Bottle album, released in July. Produced with the very dapper Victor Van Vugt (Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Dave Graney and the Coral Snakes, Luna) the record featured ten new original songs and a cover of Billie Holliday's You're My Thrill. It spawned three singles - Smokin' Johnny Cash, Spin the Wheel and Blue Skes, Blue Sea and proved to be their most successful release to date. A busy touring schedule saw The Blackeyed Susans occupied for almost a year, concluding in March '98 with a national tour with The Whitlams. The album also recieved a nomination in the ARIA awards for the year.
Also of note during this period was the release of the Wminc Productions' compilation album Where Joy Kills Sorrow, which featured Phil Kakulas and Mark Dawson playing on several tracks, as well as Rob Snarki collaborating with Matt Walker on If You Don't Want My Love.
Likewise, keyboardist Kiernan Box released the very wonderful Wet Your Beak album by his band The Disappointments, featuring Mark C. Halstead on vocals.
After some much needed respite The Blackeyed Susans reconvened in August to record the La Mascara EP, released November '98. It featured five new tracks including Oh Yeah, Oh Yeah, Oh No and To Skin A Man. Both received much airplay on yer Js and other like-minded stations. A video for Skin was commissioned. Produced and directed by Adam Kyle and Holly Shorland, its provocative images of flesh and blood were too much for the ABC who chose to screen it only in black and white. A tour ensued through the summer and well into 1999.
In February came the sad news that Blackeyed Susans co-founder David McComb had died at his Northcote home. Dave, of course, had been the singer and songwriter for The Triffids since forming the band at high school with Alsy McDonald and Phil Kakulas in the late seventies. In the nineties he had suffered much ill health, culminating in a heart transplant in 1995. He is truly missed. Some words about Dave, including much biographical information written by members of The Susans, can be found here.
From May to July '99, The Susans worked on 13 songs on a four-track in the living room of Rob's flat, living only on a diet of corn chips and tea. News first filtered through in August of a new album, Shangri-La, to be recorded and released in the new year. "Less rock, more roll" they said at the time "with an op-shop kind of feel". Whatever that meant.
But it was not to be. In May 2000 The Blackeyed Susans parted ways with their record company Mds after it was bought by Festival. The Shangri-La album was put on hold. "We hope to record it by the end of the world, um the year" said the band as they hurried down to the market place to hock their wares. By December 2000 the Shangri-La album had become as elusive as the lost paradise of its namesake.
2001 saw The Blackeyed Susans back with a new album, Dedicated To The Ones We Love, released on their own label, Teardrop, and distributed through Shock. The record paid tribute to the influences and aspirations of the band - twisting Hollywood Elvis and epic Sinatra into Big Star and The Velvet Underground. Well received by the public and lauded by the critics, a national tour followed keeping the band busy until the end of the year.
Early 2002 saw band members busy themselves with solo and side projects, most notably the recording of an album from Rob Snarski and Dan Luscombe entitled, There Is Nothing Here That Belongs To You, released later in the year on the Quietly Suburban label to much praise and national tours with Marianne Faithfull and Paul Kelly.
Melbourne 2002 – 2017
In Spring 2002 The Blackeyed Susans returned to the leopard-skin confines of Sing-Sing Studios in downtown Richmond to finally record the lost album of Shangri-La, augmenting their lush velvet tones with op-shop instruments and old vinyl.
The result is a strangely evocative and beautifully twisted album that picks over the trash and treasure of past styles and sounds. Released July 21st, 2002 on Teardrop through Shock the album garnered The Susans another ARIA nomination.
This time for 'Best Adult Contemporary Album'. Dan and Phil made the trip to the big smoke of Sydney for the awards only to be beaten by the more than worthy Go-Betweens album Bright Yellow, Bright Orange. Still, was a fine night that was had with dear Gee Dub and Co. The Blackeyed Susans toured extensively before returning to Melbourne to discuss their future.
In 2003 it was decided that in order to accommodate the lives, loves, careers and interests of the band members, The Susans would become a part-time affair, performing together as time and interest dictated. Performances by the whole band became infrequent, although the 4-piece trio could still be found playing the odd residency around Melbourne.
In the meantime bandmates busied themselves with all manner of things, most notably Dan Luscombe, first with Paul Kelly and Dan Kelly and then as a member of The Drones. Increasingly busy, his position as guitar player in the group was taken in 2005 by the very talented J.P. Shilo, ex-Hungry Ghosts leader and sidekick to musical luminaries like Roland S. Howard and Mick Harvey. Meanwhile, Kiernan Box had joined the very wonderful Augie March, playing on indie hit One Crowded Hour and numerous albums over the ensuing years.
Rob, Phil, Mark and J.P. came together in Jan 2008 in Sydney as guests of The Triffids, to pay tribute to songwriter and founding member David McComb in their Sydney Festival show A Secret In The Shape Of A Song. Other guests besides The Susans included Mark Snarski, Steve Kilbey, Mick Harvey and Toby Martin (Youth Group). The show was part celebration, wake, family reunion, memorial and performance and is the subject of a film It’s Raining Pleasure, available on DVD.
In January 2009, a dream came true when The Blackeyed Susans opened for the ‘Grocer of Despair’ himself, the incomparable Leonard Cohen at A Day on the Green, Coldstream, just outside of Melbourne. The Susans closed their set with a rousing rendition of Cohen’s Memories (after first getting permission from the man himself), which they had recorded for All Souls Alive way back in 1993.
October 2009 saw The Blackeyed Susans release a 4-disc box-set retrospective Reveal Yourself 1989-2009 that includes the best of their six albums, b-sides and rarities and all the videos. The box-set was released to enthusiastic reviews, with Rolling Stone magazine declaring the band ‘national treasures’. A lengthy tour of Australia followed.
The Blackeyed Susans travelled to Europe in April 2010 as guests of The Triffids to participate in further Secret In The Shape of A Song shows in England, Belgium and Greece as well as performing shows in their own right. All was proceeding well until the Icelandic volcano erupted, closing airports and casting the group's plans to perform in Vienna into disarray. In subsequent years, the band has vowed to fulfill the contract and play Vienna - but is yet to realise the ambition...one day.
In 2014, after 25 years as the velvet-voiced singer of The Blackeyed Susans, Rob Snarski released his debut solo album, Wounded Bird. Produced by Rob and Dan Luscombe with Yikesville studio boss Shane O’Mara, the album was a much more intimate affair than the lush arrangements of The Blackeyed Susans. Rob followed up the album in 2015 with a collection of cover versions called Low Fidelity Songs by Request Volume 1. The result of Rob’s very successful crowd-funding project (frittata anyone?), the songs were chosen by fans and friends and were recorded at home - in his kitchen, office and bedroom – all on his iPhone.
The first glimpse of the long promised (but still not materialised) new album from The Susans came in the form of the Lover or the Loved single, released at the end of 2016. Coinciding with the group’s now annual Melbourne Xmas shows, the single also contained three exclusive bonus tracks: Yellow, Brown & Green (a loping tune about the cycle of life), The Good Life Never Ends (one of David McComb’s unreleased gems from his last band costar) and Dirty Thoughts (for a Dirty Age) (a grubby exposition on our life and times). Produced by Dan Luscombe, the single bodes well for the release of the group’s new album Close Your Eyes and See in March 2017.
May you each find your own Shangri-La.